Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Activism and the Internet, part 2

Well, I wasn't intending to write any more about this topic but having read another blog posting in this general area today, some observations about people and the internet:

#1. The internet causes rational people who have been using it for some time to become rather cynical.

It only takes a few hoaxes or urban legends or "Bonsai Kittens" to wise most folks up to the fact that there's a lot of stuff out there on the internet that is just plain not true. In my opinion, a healthy dose of cynicism is a good thing. If you hear something that sounds particularly outlandish, it probably is, and should be checked with snopes.com before you forward it to all your friends.

#2. A corollary of #1: People who follow politics on the internet become very cynical and questioning about the so-called MSM, mainstream media

This is probably due to the fact that it's very easy to follow a story online by pulling news from a variety of sources, including overseas media, and then to compare and contrast that coverage with the coverage you see in your paper or on the various cable networks. Add in the documentary "Outfoxed," which dramatically demonstrated how a news network's coverage can be ideologically warped by demands from the head honcho of the corporation, and you find that most people who get a lot of their news from the internet are deeply suspicious of the MSM outlets' coverage and motivation.

#3. Here's the flip side of #1. If you take the internet too far, it might be bad for your sense of reality.

Consider this: The internet has a seamy underbelly of lies, scams, and bullshit. Political campaigns pay bloggers to spread misinformation. Sign up with a new, anonymous email account, and you can become anyone you want. People regularly try out different identities, even up to and including different sexes and ages. That hot twenty-one year old girl you're enthusiastically IM'ing? Could be, in reality, a fifty year old balding potbellied guy.

Remember Plato's cave? Reality, for Plato, was like a movie. A bunch of flickering shadows on the wall. Well, if reality's a shadow, the internet is a shadow of a shadow. It's the country of the mind. I am drawing this picture of myself for you, my reader, with the words I am writing, but how much relationship do all my pretty philosophies I'm expounding here have to the real, incarnate me, the flesh-and-blood human? I might even be a committee. You don't know.

Now, all of this will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever tried internet dating.

And, if you haven't, you might want to try it. It's pretty interesting. It is entirely possible to "meet" a person via their profile, spend hours exchanging chatty emails, develop a conception of that person in your mind and even fall in love with that conception, and then meet that person and get roundly slapped upside the head with the reality of them, right there in your face. Ooo, I know what you're going to say, "Isn't it possible to fall in love with someone for their mind?" Maybe, but how they express that mind on the internet, and how they express that mind in person can be two completely different things. A fellow who has plenty of time to express himself in courtly phrases via email can turn out to be quite taciturn and even unpleasant in real life. And, you know, if you're just THINKING all hearts and flowers, and not SAYING them, it don't count for much. Anyway.

So, to return to point #3, the side effect to all of this uber-shadowy-ness is that if a person spends too much time on the internet and not enough time getting things done, getting grounded in real life, that person can also develop a slippery sense of reality. I don't know how else to describe it, but you've probably seen it. The person who continued to question, and question, and question, because they were presented with a fact that didn't fit the story they were pursuing, and so instead of rethinking the story, they had to question the fact. This then leads off into full-blown tinfoilhat territory.

Which leads us to observation #4. You don't know who you're talking to on the internet.

The person who you're having a lively mailing list exchange with could be a denizen of tinfoilhatland (see #3). They could be 14 years old. They could be someone with a very specific agenda they're not telling you about. They could have a completely inadequate grasp on basic logic, in which case you might very well get into one of those frustrating, just-slipping-out-of-your-grasp arguments in which you make your point, beautifully explaining the logical flow of your argument, how A leads to B which then proves C, and the person will blindly refuse to recognize that. You're sitting there tearing your hair out saying something (and you might in fact be saying it very well) and it's just bouncing off this person like a ball bouncing off a brick wall.

Which leads to my conclusion, and observation #5: Don't give any of us shadows out here more credibility than we deserve.

Now, it's certainly possible for people to convey a lot of their true selves on the internet, and certain bloggers and posters will manage to convey a sense of who they are. People online build up credibility by the quality of what they write: its logic, intellectual honesty, sourcing, and style. You know people who you have met online and who turned out to be exactly who they say they are.

But ultimately? These words out here-- they aren't real people. They're representations of people at best. So, in your online chats and discussions, as you travel around the world online, don't take any of this personally. Flamewars, slurs on your integrity, personal attacks, etc. are all to be expected as part of life online. Sure, they sting like hell, especially if you like people and value other's opinions of you (who doesn't?). Everyone should be issued skin a mile thick for their first forays onto the internet. But it'll help thicken it up if you just keep that in mind— this stuff is fun, and sometimes almost-real, but it's not real-real.

You—you are real. You, in your town, sitting there at your computer, your lungs breathing, your heart pumping, your quiet house around you, maybe your cat on your lap. Your friends, your family, your life you're living, your community you've got around you. That's real.


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